On Taste (part 1): Why we like what we like

Arriving to the party as I typically do with a tardiness way beyond fashionable, last summer I signed up to Last FM after lobbying from impassioned Last FM advocate Adam John Miller. When I signed up, as Last FM does, it collected, counted and ordered the plays that had accumulated in my Windows Media Player (yes, I still use it). When scanning my most listened-to artists it presented me with few surprises. I didn’t remember listening to Damien Jurado anything like that much, but you can’t argue with the stats. And what surprised me least were my top two artists: Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats.

I suspected I was not alone, and checked Last FM to confirm – yep, both Adam and John’s top played artists were also Guided by Voices, then the Mountain Goats (okay, so John actually had the Wednesday Club at #2, but a lot of those plays were strictly business, right?).

Knowing Adam and John well enough this was not in the least surprising. But it struck me to be shown in stark, undeniable statistics just how closely our listening habits, and therefore tastes, coincided. For three people to not only have the top artist in common but the second as well must be quite rare. Thereafter our top artists diverged somewhat, but there were plenty of other shared names high up the list: The Magnetic Fields, Pavement, Built to Spill, Galaxie 500…er, Robert Pollard – and, yes, The Wednesday Club.

For sure, the three of us have been close friends for a while now and there were a couple of years in particular when we spent an unhealthy amount of time together. So naturally we shared between us the records and bands we most liked which meant we would have listened to a lot of the same music. In addition, we would have had numerous shared listening experiences – putting a record on whilst the three of us played Sensible Soccer, for instance. Singing along to a record while hanging out with your friends provides a kind of collective affirmation which is surely only going to reinforce the attachment you have to it. And finally, of course, we were in a band together, where you would expect shared musical tastes to be a given.

And yet I refused to dismiss this congruence of tastes as a banal or somehow inevitable consequence of our friendship.

Last year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series of books which interrogates the Celine Dion album Let’s Talk About Love. It is essentially an enquiry into the nature of taste and aesthetic judgment which has apparently even found its way onto reading lists of some degree courses on aesthetics. At the very least it’s led me to think a lot about why we like the things we do.

Wilson considers the idea (by no means his own – I think he credits it to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) that our tastes reflect values which we have or would like to see ourselves as having. Our taste judgments are acts of social positioning, a way of orienting and demarcating our social status. They are not disinterested but aspirational; they embody how we choose to present our social status to the world and are thus indicators of class. At this juncture I can’t help but think of Johnson, the unflappable and unabashed yuppie from Peep Show who blared ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ by Toploader from his BMW.

I was initially sceptical, but the thesis, when explained by Wilson, becomes quite persuasive. If true, it would make the congruence of the individual Wednesday Club members’ musical tastes even more remarkable. For if our tastes are meant to represent a set of values or principles which we chose to project, what values were Guided by Voices or the Mountain Goats meant to embody that evidently resonated so strongly with us? In the case of Guided by Voices perhaps it’s slapdash recording techniques, poor quality control and drinking heavily – those are core Wednesday Club values, after all.

Less facetiously, of course you would expect to share with your closest friends a clutch of values, some presumably fairly important, others less so. But couldn’t there be another band who reflects those same values just as well who I didn’t like half as much? Or didn’t like at all? But maybe I’m being too specific, and what we are talking about here is a shared love of indie rock generally, and perhaps the specific representative bands aren’t important.

The ‘social positioning’ hypothesis appears to apply more successfully to some types of taste better than others. It might perhaps explain why different people might choose to wear Nike trainers, Doc Martens or Jimmy Choo shoes, for instance. The example of fashion is instructive. For someone dressed in a flashy Armani suit, is taste signifying social status, or is social status determining taste? Not everyone can afford expensive clothes, whereas musical taste is arguably more democratic. It doesn’t really cost any more or less to like reggae than hip hop. For sure, watching a small local band may cost less than going to the opera, which may cost less than going to a Madonna concert. But special packaging aside, most records cost about the same, and anyone with internet access can listen to whatever music they like through Youtube, Spotify, etc.

My main beef with the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis is that it doesn’t seem to explain the personal, physical experience of enjoying music – it fails to do justice to the fist-pumping joy I feel when belting out the chorus of ‘Tractor Rape Chain’. It’s hard to believe that the visceral experience of listening, enjoying and being moved by music is due to its creators representing some values which you choose to confer your social status. I’d like to think that I prefer GBV to, say, The Who because they move, entertain and excite me more, not because they more accurately fulfil the aesthetic criteria that my social class values.

The hypothesis seems less adept at explaining how we experience our musical preferences than how we present them to others (Last FM is, after all, nothing if not a tool for presenting our musical taste). The two aspects need not coincide, and this distinction seems to be highlighted by ‘guilty pleasures’, those songs we would rather not admit to liking, which rather defy the ‘social positioning’ hypothesis. In these instances, clearly, musical taste as we experience it very deliberately does not map onto taste as we present it to others.

Given the similarity of our tastes it also struck me the extent to which Adam, John and I could still argue about music. There was plenty within our shared ‘taste pool’ which we could disagree on. To pick a nerdy example, I would strongly dispute Adam and John’s assertion that The Sunset Tree is the best Mountain Goats record, and to me this was as clear and self-evident (as opinions always seem to be to their holders) as my belief that Guided by Voices are a better band than The Who.

Similarly, I got quite irritated – to an extent which itself irritated me – by a recent Drowned in Sound edition of the ubiquitous ‘best album ever’ poll. The list was topped by a slightly unusual but not altogether shocking choice: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, a record I love but would not personally put towards the very top of the pile. Further down, the list featured a lot of familiar and predictable entries and, at the same time, a number of my favourites, some with a much higher ranking than they normally get in these polls (Illinois or In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, to pick two). In short, I would probably conclude that it was very broadly a reasonable enough approximation of my musical taste.

But one thing still rankled. And that thing was bloody Interpol. The DiS ‘community’ had named Turn On The Bright Lights their fourth favourite album. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a solid enough album. A bit derivative, naturally, and it slumps heavily in the second half if you ask me, but a good debut. Fourth, though? Interpol had even managed to leave off the album my favourite song of theirs, ‘The Specialist’.

In the countless best album polls there are always going to be entries you personally disagree with. But here was a list complied by individuals who clearly had tastes similar to me and whose values supposedly chimed uncommonly well with mine. How, I thought, could these people collectively get it so wrong? And why did it annoy me so much?

But ultimately, I have to resort to that most facile truism that it would be a dull world if all our tastes were the same. I guess musical preferences are just not all that rational, predictable or explainable. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste.

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